The passing into history of another US presidency is always a poignant time. It’s a lot like losing a close friend who, after you’ve invited him into your home and your heart, loved him and nurtured him and given him your nuclear codes, suddenly decides to abandon you and go on a lucrative speaking tour. At least, I assume it’s a lot like that — that’s never actually happened to me.
Some might say it’s a trifle presumptuous for an Australian like me to comment on the Bush presidency. "Who are you," they may ask, "with your Antipodean sensibility and detachment from American life and poor research skills, to pass judgment on a foreign leader?" And they make a good point, but these anonymous critics fail to note two crucial factors: 1) I have for many, many years been a keen student and observer of our great friend across the Pacific; and 2) Australian news is extremely boring.
Just what is the legacy of George W "Buffy" Bush? How will history view the man who some have called "the 43rd President of the United States of America"? Will he be seen as the man who stood up for freedom and democracy when all around were wilting and cowering and sending Christmas cards to Hezbollah? Or will he be seen as the man who could, given a certain number of practice tries, successfully eat a pretzel?
Of course, it’s very easy to make fun of Bush — indeed, that’s the main reason that I am doing so — but surely such an important historical figure deserves a more considered analysis? Of course he does, which just goes to show that life is not fair.
And it’s the unfairness of life which provides the running theme of the Bush years. It was not fair, for example, that Bush had to deal, so soon in his presidency, with the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, after Bill Clinton went eight years without having to cope with anything more serious than the rise of ‘N Sync.
Put yourself in Bush’s position. You’ve just settled into the job, looking forward to a nice quiet presidency, getting in some light reading, when BAM! All of a sudden terrorists have attacked and you are forced, against every instinct in your soul, to do something. You can’t blame Bush for being a little unnerved, a little stunned, a little immobile and glassy-eyed. Nothing in his previous career — which had consisted largely of heavy drinking and capital punishment — could have prepared him for such a challenge. His bachelor’s degree in history was, tragically, rendered almost useless.
Only time will tell whether the War on Terror will be as successful as the War on Drugs or the War on Germans, but at least Bush did something. At least he took action. Seven years ago, we were all terrified that we were about to be blown up, and today, thanks in no small part to the President’s efforts, we are merely terrified that we are going to lose our jobs. The imminent possibility of horrific death has been pushed to the back of our minds, replaced with more reassuring paranoia. It’s not every president that could achieve that kind of misdirection.
Naturally, Bush has his critics, mostly disreputable hippie types. There are even those who have dubbed Bush the worst president ever. But that’s such a subjective judgment, isn’t it? How do you compare presidents across eras? How do you say whether Bush is a worse president than John F Kennedy, a man so inept he failed to complete even one term? Which was worse, Bush’s foreign policy or Clinton’s philandering? Ulysses Grant’s alcoholism or Woodrow Wilson’s foot fetish? It’s an impossible task. And at least Bush tried. He did his best. If not the Carl Lewis of American politics, he is at least the Tamsyn. There are worse things to be. Probably.
After all, what did he do that was so bad? The war in Iraq? Oh sure, we can say now that it was based on faulty intelligence, but at the time the view that Saddam Hussein was sitting in Baghdad with a barrel of warheads and an itchy button-finger was widely accepted, even by impartial international observers such as John Howard. And perhaps the war could have been conducted a little better, but couldn’t any war? Isn’t it true that World War II would have been over much more quickly if Churchill hadn’t lost his map of Germany?
Did Bush drop the ball on torture? Well, it’s a matter of opinion whether the US overstepped the mark here. After all, one man’s torture is another man’s sadistic inflicting of intense physical and psychological suffering for the purposes of extracting information, as the saying goes.
Hurricane Katrina? We’re really reaching here. Bush doesn’t control the weather, does he? He doesn’t make it rain. It is a hard marker indeed who would hold the President responsible for hurricanes or floods or poor people’s welfare. And admit it: before Hurricane Katrina you’d never even heard of New Orleans.
The financial crisis? Well, as I think is well established, that was caused by God, not Bush. While it’s certainly true that Bush is one of God’s closest friends — they were on the cheerleading squad together at high school — that doesn’t mean Bush directs God’s every move. To suggest that the American President somehow "got into" God’s ear and told him to ruin the global economy is as silly as suggesting that God somehow "instructed" Bush to invade Iraq.
And so we now enter a new era. The Obama era. An era of hope and inspiration and celebrity and general sexiness. But I can’t help mourning a little for the passing of the old ways. Today everything is so slick and media-managed and appearance-driven. George W Bush represents the last of his breed. He represents a time when all you needed to become president was some folksy wisdom, a winning grin, and the dissemination of rumours of interracial adultery.
So sure, you can criticise Bush, for his policies, his dishonesty, his misfiring neurons, but I think, like me, you’re just a little sorry to see him go. Not that he’ll ever really go away. No, I’m sure we’ll see George W again. He’ll keep working, keep striving, keep finding ways to give of himself to the world. We all know he’s done enough, but he’s a giver. He’s a trier. He can’t be stopped. As they say, you can take the boy out of Texas, but he’ll still talk funny.
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